A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[URBAN NOTE] “Historicist: “The World Will Little Note Nor Long Remember…””

Torontoist reposted Kevin Plumber’s Historicist article describing the life of William McDougall, “Canadian witness to the Gettysburg Address.”

It was only about 270 words long, but the Gettysburg Address has resounded for generations. Abraham Lincoln’s appearance on a podium in the small Pennsylvania farm town on November 19, 1863, has been reported upon, debated, studied by academics, memorized by school children, and mythologized in fiction and on film. Newspaper coverage of the day sometimes reflected a correspondent’s faithful observations, sometimes was tinted by an editor’s party affiliation. Conflicting and contradictory recollections of eyewitnesses, repeated—mistakes and all—in countless magazine articles and books, hardened into conventional wisdom. Certain persistent myths (that the president had hastily composed the speech on a scrap of paper aboard the train, for example) were long trusted as fact until debunked by another generation of scholars.

Among these layers of fact and legend is the tale of William McDougall. A Toronto lawyer, newspaperman, and politician, McDougall attended the Gettysburg Address by special invitation of President Lincoln. Like so many other versions of that day, McDougall’s account, recounted to and recorded by his descendants, contains a mix of both confirmed fact and unsubstantiated anecdote.

In the late 1840s, McDougall helped launch the Clear Grit movement and establish the movement’s newspaper, the North American. For the Clear Grits, Responsible Government (the principle of making Parliament accountable to the populace rather than the Crown) did not extend democracy far enough. They endorsed expanding the franchise, ballot voting, representation by population, and constraints on the political privileges of churches and the clergy, among other reform initiatives.

McDougall proved to be an eloquent orator and advocate of reform ideas. He was also an aloof eccentric, an outsider with a cynical view of politics. More interested in advancing his own political goals than solidarity with a consistent party line, McDougall shifted alliances freely depending on the issue. This, in addition to the wide number of constituencies he represented over his long political career, earned McDougall the moniker “Wandering Willie.” After McDougall’s death in 1905, obituaries noted quite euphemistically that the Father of Confederation was admired for his independence of character.

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Written by Randy McDonald

January 22, 2017 at 7:30 pm

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